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An 80th birth anniversary in post- war Sri Lanka

Sept 5th: Mervyn de Silva’s 80th birth anniversary

"Mervyn had his well known political sympathies, but was never an apparatchik, and always maintained his own distinctive position. Maintaining his intellectual independence and attempting to rise above the fray, on occasions he found himself caught in the crossfire. It turned out that the Lake House bosses had received information that the leaders of the Government had decided to “nationalize” the press; that this decision had been made in Cairo, and that Mervyn had been in on it or worse, actually lobbied for it."

By Dayan Jayatilleka

(September 06, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I reflect possibly for the last time for a few years to come, let’s say five, on Mervyn de Silva, former editor of the Daily News and Sunday Observer, former editor-in-chief of the Lake House and the Times groups of newspapers, founder editor of the Lanka Guardian magazine, founder-president of the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka -- and my father -- on his 80th death anniversary, having returned home to a country of victory in war and uncertainty in peace; a country of renewed hope and expectation and polarized postwar prospect. It is a country in which the majority of citizens are rightfully grateful to the political and military leadership for vanquishing a deadly, existential enemy that had terrorized the island for decades, and which successive dithering administrations had failed to overcome. It is also a country that, having won the shooting war, needs to win the “legitimacy war” (Richard Falk).

Nowhere is the postwar polarization more evident than in the matter of the IDPs, where the discourse of the impassioned liberal humanitarian clashes with that of the neoconservative “securocrat”. Both forget the multidimensional character of the reality of the problem. The war is over. The worst guys lost. The IDPs are humans with inalienable rights, and fellow citizens with rights equal to ours. They were also part of the mass base of a separatist terrorist army, by whichever mixture of consent and coercion. Some went from Jaffna with the LTTE after Riviresa in late 1995, while most Tamil civilians didn’t and many headed in the opposite direction.

These are the multiple realities, but the liberal focuses on the purely humanitarian aspect, naively forgetting that of security, while the neoconservative security bureaucrat forgets that though they were once part of the mass base of the enemy, no child or old woman or man belongs behind security wire and armed guards (unless convicted of an offense by the courts). La guerre est finie. The war is over and we have won; furthermore, we are the majority and for all these reasons it is incumbent on us, the South, the Sinhalese to be magnanimous. Post war security must be understood in the broader sense of “human security”: whereas the human cannot be secure if the state is threatened, conversely the state cannot be secure if the human being is under siege.


My last day as Ambassador/Permanent Representative, August 20th, would have been my parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. The circumstances of my return to Colombo bore a strange resemblance to one of Mervyn’s, 45 years ago, on which my mother Lakshmi and I accompanied him. The July 17th fax from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs instructing me to relinquish my post in a month, was sent on the day that the top-level Sri Lankan delegation returned from the Non Aligned Summit in Sharm el Sheikh. Mervyn, the island’s foremost expert on the Middle East would have noticed that for the first time, the Sri Lankan speech made no mention whatsoever of peace in the Middle East; not even a passing reference in the softest, most moderate tones, despite the fact that the NAM Summit was being held in Egypt. Furthermore, there was not a single reference to the 2nd NAM summit in Cairo at which Sri Lanka was represented by an SLFP leader nor any mention of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, with whom Sri Lanka had the warmest relationship. Mervyn would have immediately noted the sharp turn or deviation in the traditional foreign policy of Sri Lanka and especially the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

This is not, however, the strange symmetry that I was referring to. In 1964 Mervyn de Silva covered the 2nd Non Aligned Conference for Lake House and accompanied the Sri Lankan delegation led by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and Felix Dias Bandaranaike. He took my mother and me (aged 7) along. Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Cairo was the elegant and hospitable Lakshmi Naganadan, a friend of my parents. On his return from the NAM summit in Egypt, Mervyn was facing the sack. This was September and just months away from the centre-left coalition’s myopic effort to “take over” Lake House, i.e. bring it under state control. As we know, the effort proved abortive thanks to the deft footwork of Esmond Wickremesinghe, and led to the collapse of the SLFP led administration, paving the way for elections which brought a UNP led coalition to office. The take-over bid was revived in the early 1970s by the returning centre-left coalition, this time successfully.

Mervyn had his well known political sympathies, but was never an apparatchik, and always maintained his own distinctive position. Maintaining his intellectual independence and attempting to rise above the fray, on occasions he found himself caught in the crossfire. It turned out that the Lake House bosses had received information that the leaders of the Government had decided to “nationalize” the press; that this decision had been made in Cairo, and that Mervyn had been in on it or worse, actually lobbied for it. This was of course arrant nonsense, because he was as opposed to the state takeover of the press as he was to the biases of private oligopolistic ownership, and in the early 1970s, as Editor of the Daily News, privately urged Mrs. Bandaranaike not to take over Lake House just as he had urged the owners of Lake House not to be as openly biased towards the UNP as they were during the election of 1970 which he assured them the SLFP would win.

Then as now, facts hardly get in way of intrigue in board rooms, mansions and palaces of the various factions of Sri Lanka’s ruling classes, so Mervyn’s innocence in this matter was irrelevant. He was to be dismissed from Lake House. Almost directly from the airport he went with me in tow to the rather Dostoevskyian Press Club (also known as “Simeon’s joint” after the owner -- whose son, a long-time driver of a fellow ambassador, hailed me in Geneva) to pick up the news from his fellow journalists ranging from pro UNP Dharmapala Wettasinghe to the Communist BA Siriwardene; hard drinking men bound by camaraderie of a shared university life and professional integrity.

In the event Mervyn was not fired—that was to happen at the peak of his career, as Editor Daily News and Editor in Chief Lake House, at the hands of the SLFP and Prime Minister Bandaranaike, over a decade later, in late 1975 or early ’76. What happened in 1964 after the 2nd NAM summit in Egypt was that Mervyn was downshifted around, bitterly dismayed to realize that he would not be made Editor of the Daily News, and physically penned into a small partitioned space, pale blue boards with frosted glass or plastic, with a Communist sympathizing personal assistant or “peon” in Bermuda length khakis, named Pedris (whom Mervyn promptly dubbed “Pedro the Fisherman”). Confined to that small cubicle with the room of the Editor Observer mere yards away and within sight (“Mervyn mahattayava koodukarala”— has been caged -- Pedris would tell me) overcrowded with paper clippings, books and magazines, Mervyn spent the UNP years 1965-1970 writing some of his most scintillating and searing pieces, from the satirical column Off My Beat to essays on Che Guevara’s Diaries, the Vietnam War, and the history of the CIA. After school, I would hang around my old man’s cubicle. Mervyn’s writings would return to the radicalism of these years when he founded the Lanka Guardian, on the first May Day immediately after the promulgation of JR Jayewardene’s 1978 Constitution.

Mervyn’s advocacy of balance for the sake of credibility, sustainability and enlightened self interest, fell on deaf ears, whether those of the owners of the private media, organically linked to the UNP, then as now, or the state, in the hands of the SLFP with its self-image of patriotism and progressivism. He was finally made Editor when the voters dislodged the pro-West elite rule of the UNP, and promoted to Editor-in-Chief and Director when the SLFP administration “nationalized” Lake House against his advice (he preferred that the state purchase a sizeable shareholding in the private press). Whereas in any other political culture Mervyn would have made it to the top of the journalistic ladder by sheer ability, in Sri Lanka it took a particular combination of sociopolitical circumstances, a particular conjuncture. He would never have had the opening to be the great editor he proved himself to be were it not for the contradiction between the UNP and SLFP, the fissuring open of the frozen Establishment by the masses backing the centre-left coalition, and the lack of credible support among English language professional journalists for the SLFP cause. The contradiction inherent in that confluence of circumstances was that the very qualities which made Mervyn the most credible and skilled representative in the media of the broad centre-left cause, also opened a gap between him and the “line” (though perhaps not the enlightened self interest, of which there was no notion) of that SLFP administration. As the larger crisis mounted, the response of the SLFP administration, just as that of the centre-right Jayewardene administration which would follow it, was to tighten up, crack down, and replace individuals capable of offering an autonomous analytical opinion with “team players” and “committed loyalists”. Mervyn would say jokingly that he “might have been willing to consider playing a serf, but they wanted a slave”.

Under the increasingly vengeful SLFP administration of the 1970s, a senior Daily News journalist Fred de Silva was sent to jail, with the Justice Ministry pushing hard for a lesson to be administered. Today, J. Tissanaiyagam, a journalist with pro-Tiger views, faces 20 years hard labor, for writing articles allegedly causing racial hatred. Tissanaiyagam’s views were repugnantly pro-Tiger, but as Mervyn would have editorially insisted, repellent views in a publication must be repelled by equivalent means of newspaper articles and argumentation; by the force of argument rather than the force of law and the state.

Mervyn was too left for the UNP, too liberal for the Left, too Westernized for the SLFP nativists and Lake House trade unionists, too pro Soviet and pro Cuban for the SLFP’s ‘China wing’, too Maoist for the pro Soviets, and simply a “CIA agent” (yesteryear’s “RAW agent”) for senile Samasamajist second raters. Tarzie Vittachi put it best when he said of Lankan labeling: “Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where every rumor is a fact, where there can be a smoke without a fire, and every man with five bucks more in his pocket than you is a CIA agent”. He might have mentioned a Harvey & Hudson shirt and YSL tie.

In a period of the overall decline of the Sri Lankan media and the deterioration of the climate of regime-tolerance of independent journalism, Mervyn de Silva’s stellar achievement as Editor Daily News was a brilliant anomaly, going against the tide. It was an individual achievement which was never replicated; an achievement of an individual whose knowledge and understanding of English literature and matchless use of the resources of the English language, thorough familiarity with local politics, mastery of world politics and international relations, non-conformist temperament and irreverent humor could not sit well with the sociopolitical and ideological trends that had set in and would become dominant. A Third Worldist, he derided parochialism, and was for “rapid, radical structural change”, not leveling down.

At the height of his success as Editor Daily News, Mervyn could have quietened down, conformed, consolidated his success and played it safe. His prose style had certainly matured; the tone less edgy and surer. Mervyn’s higher loyalty was not however, to the leader or Government, political project or party line, ideology or perceived national exigency, but to the highest values, traditions and norms of his vocation, and to the compulsions of his own critical intellect. In 1972, when the government was at the zenith of its power, flushed with its successful military suppression of the JVP insurrection, the passage of its Republican Constitution, and the prolongation of Emergency powers, Mervyn began to dissent, writing editorials cautioning about youth perceptions of discrimination and stirrings of militant unrest in the North. In 1973, the Daily News under Mervyn gave fair coverage to the funeral of former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, and he penned one of his most poignant editorials on Mr. Senanayake’s contribution to the national ethos. The Cabinet and the cabal of relatives and retainers inhabiting the Byzantine corridors of Temple Trees and Rosemead walauwwa, from Lake House chairman AK Premadasa right up to the PM’s Coordinating Secretary, began to regard their most successful and internationally respected editor as a problem.

The trigger of his gradual exit from Lake House and the ranks of the State was predictably an article. It was a piece by Mervyn in The Economist (London) on how the Chilean coup of 1973 was playing in the local political theatre, illustrated by a less than flattering photograph of the PM. Mervyn found himself the target of a fatwa: if he wished to remain Editor he could no longer write to the foreign press. Thus did the SLFP deprive itself of a toehold in the international media established by the only Sri Lankan journalist who was broadly sympathetic to that party. Though Mervyn complied for a while, it was only a holding operation. He was soon kicked upstairs as Senior Editorial Advisor, and then out the door. Two years later in 1978, when JR Jayewardene used the Business Acquisition Act to silence the newly revived Times Group and sack Mervyn who was its editor in chief, my father, the only journalist to be editor-in-chief of both major newspaper companies, became the only editor to be fired by both the SLFP and the UNP. He went on to found the Lanka Guardian magazine, plunging into alternative journalism, having been master of the mainstream.

Throughout his conscious life, as schoolboy, university student and journalist, at Law College, Lake House and Lanka Guardian, in the New York Times, the Washington Post and on the BBC, Mervyn de Silva spoke in his own voice. That voice was informed by a sensibility that sought the vital centre and a self-assurance that valued the broader over the narrower, the higher over the lower: profession over family, nation over ethno-religious identity, world over nation, Reason over received wisdom, modernity over antiquity, choice over heritage, critical judgment over collective belief, independence over cultural conformity, individual freedom over group loyalty, universal over parochial, and the human, above all.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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